‘Becoming Cousteau’ review: the old man and the sea

Jacques-Yves Cousteau passed away in 1997, and it can be difficult for people of age in the years that follow to grasp the extent of his notoriety, even to recognize the category of celebrity to which he belonged.

A former French naval officer, unquenchable lover of the sea, he combines the enthusiasm of an old-fashioned adventurer with the technocratic discipline of the first astronauts. He was both inventor and explorer, filmmaker turned environmentalist and, thanks to his natural charisma and his signature red watch cap, a universally recognized figure of pop culture.

“Becoming Cousteau”, Liz Garbus’s new National Geographic documentary, succeeds in giving Cousteau back some of its brilliance, but also its relevance. It is a detailed and quick biography, telling of a long, eventful life strewn with tragedies and regrets.

The archive footage is thrilling, whether it’s tracking coral reefs and schools of fish, or taking a peek into the remarkable history of the French men’s swimsuit. Cousteau’s ship, an unarmed minesweeper named Calypso, comes across as a place of swashbuckling, macho good humor – Simone Cousteau, the captain’s wife, insisted on being the only woman on board – and of rigorous scientific investigation.

But Garbus (whose recent documentaries include “Love, Marilyn” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?”) Seeks more than a poignant nostalgia or a sense of lost wonder. Cousteau’s story as she tells it – aided by narration drawn from interviews with Cousteau’s colleagues and children, as well as the audio of the man himself – speaks to the awakening of his awareness, of how his fascination with Earth’s oceans turned into a crusade to save them.

From a present point of view, it seems intuitive that a person dedicated to exploring the oceans should also be committed to their preservation. “Becoming Cousteau” suggests something close to the opposite. In the annals of human exploration, curiosity is often a prelude and a catalyst for conquest. And so it was, at least initially, with Cousteau.

After injuries sustained in a car accident put an end to his dream of becoming a pilot, Cousteau turned to spearfishing off the Mediterranean coast of France. With his friends Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, he develops new diving techniques and underwater respirators which open up new horizons.

After World War II, its ambitions widened. “The silent world”, Cousteau’s feature film in 1956 – which won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for best documentary – offered “an hour and twenty-six minutes of pictorial (and piscatorial) thrills”, according to New York Times critic. Like many explorers, Cousteau viewed this newly mapped world as something to be exploited, even colonized. He looked forward to permanent underwater human settlements and the rise of “homo aquaticus”, a new type of human accustomed to life in water.

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‘Becoming Cousteau’ review: the old man and the sea

Hank Gilbert